British Journal of Political Science Conference British Academy, London, 8 June 2006
HOLISTIC DEMOCRACY AND PHYSICAL PUBLIC SPACE John Parkinson University of York [email protected]
Introduction When political theorists discuss public space they generally take it to be a metaphor that refers to the myriad ways in which citizens separated in time and space can participate in collective deliberation, decision-making and action, a concept interchangeable with ‘the public realm’ or ‘the public sphere’ (for example Benhabib 1992; Nagel 1995). Thus ‘public space’ is taken by many to refer to things like the media, the internet, and networks of citizens in civil society, such that ‘the literal meaning has almost been wiped out’ (Hénaff and Strong 2001, 35). This shift has taken place for good reasons. From the standpoint of democratic theory, the issues are scale and complexity: the members of largescale, complex societies cannot all gather together in a physical forum to argue, deliberate and decide; yet they need to participate in public debate in some way if that society is to be called democratic, even if only to debate their choice of representatives. But while the pursuit of metaphorical conceptions of public space is clearly a worthwhile endeavour, and one that is doing much to broaden conceptions of democracy, I think it would be a pity to wipe out the literal meaning. Instead, this paper contends that physical public space matters to democracy, and that neglecting the physical can have detrimental consequences for a democratic society’s health. While political theory has moved away from the physical, social theory has embraced it. Indeed, social theory and some related disciplines have undergone a ‘spatial turn’ in the last fifteen years or so, leading to a blossoming of interest in matters of politics and space in geography, sociology, and architectural theory.1 This has led to some useful work not just, as one might expect, on the social construction of space and political boundaries, but also on the way in which spatial relationships and built environments reflect power relations and shape behaviour. However, from a democracy theorist’s point of view, work in these fields tend to focus on descriptive aspects, especially the power relations that are said to be inscribed in spatial forms. They do not connect at all with the revolution in democratic theory that has taken place during the same period. This means that when social and urban scholars write about democracy and public space they tend to do so assuming a rather thin, unproblematised concept of democracy. Perhaps this is only fair: to the extent
The ‘spatial turn’ phrase is from Soja (1989); other key figures are Benjamin (1999) and Lefebvre (1991). For recent examples, see Barnett and Low (2004), Borden (2001), Davis (1990) and Parker (2004).
that they have noticed it at all, writers on democracy have tended to work using a somewhat thin, unproblematised concept of physical space. This paper is part of an attempt to reconnect current thinking on democracy and public space. The normative starting point is a holistic, public sphere-oriented account of deliberative democratic action. On this account, public space matters because of the functional necessity of physical arenas for democratic action. Indeed, I claim that physical arenas matter even to action in virtual public spaces; that democratic debate in the news media, the internet, or in civil society still requires physical anchor points for the purposes of political dramatisation and communication. The paper then offers a novel conceptualisation of public space based on the principles of accessibility and inescapability. I dismiss definitions based on the political theory of ownership, and highlight the entirely opposite ways in which the public/private distinction is conceptualised by political and architectural theorists. I then explore the different kinds of space needed for a variety of democratic actions, from the formal public sphere of parliaments to the informal public spheres of civil society, fleshing out the answer to why public space matters. The paper concludes by considering some normative implications for the health of democracy, and efforts to measure that state of health. Democracy: a holistic account My starting point for this discussion is a holistic, deliberative view of democratic societies and the various actions and roles that are expected of democratic citizens. It is in part a reaction against a certain institutional fundamentalism that is a feature of some democratic writing, a fundamentalism that is perhaps the inevitable result of the dominance of deductive approaches. By this I mean the tendency for scholars to take a particular set of democratic ideals – equality and deliberation, say – and attempt to locate or create institutions which instantiate those principles as perfectly as possible. The danger of this should be obvious: even if their meanings were not deeply contested, democratic ideals stand in tension with one another, so that no one institution can instantiate all the desirable principles at once. We cannot have both perfect deliberation and perfectly equal inclusion, because the conditions of the one undermine the other. We cannot have both perfect principal-agent representation and high quality deliberation by those representatives, because the freedom to change one’s mind, a necessity if one is to enter the deliberative spirit, undermines the representative’s role as mouthpiece for her constituents. However, the danger is frequently ignored: the democracy literature abounds with criticism of process A because it does not perfectly meet requirement x, or advocacy of process B because it does – but only does. Thus democratic ideas are rejected because they do not fit a preconceived model of democracy; or models themselves are rejected on the grounds of one or two bad cases.2 This thinking infects would-be reformers who tinker with institutions in isolation, forgetting that an institution that looks odd under the microscope might nonetheless perform a valuable function in the democratic system as a whole. The alternative is to think about democratic societies more holistically. Habermas’s explicitly sociological exploration (1996) offers one such vision, an 2
I do not exclude myself from this criticism – see Parkinson (2001).
account of the public sphere which recognises both the creative spaces of democratic performance in the ‘informal’ public sphere – or ‘spheres’, as Fraser (1992) rightly insists – and their institutional focal point in the ‘formal’ public sphere of representative institutions. Mansbridge (1999) talks about ‘the deliberative system’, again with formal institutions at one end, everyday political conversation at the other, and a range of mediating institutions in between. Saward (2003), in an important essay, talks about the need to think of institutions as a tool kit of devices which can be connected together in creative ways in order to express democratic values more effectively. It is in that same spirit that I have offered my own account of deliberative democracy which takes into account not only the different strengths and weaknesses of particular institutions but also the roles that different actors can play, linking them together in a collective decision making sequence that tries to manage the inevitable tensions that arise when one tries to give expression to this thing called democracy (Parkinson 2006). This is not the deliberative democracy merely of citizens’ juries or parliaments; it is the deliberative democracy of democratic societies, for which particular institutions play separate roles. This holistic, normative account of democracy is an action-oriented account to the extent that it asks, ‘What should citizens be expected to do in a democratic society?’ 3 At the formal end of the public sphere, the majority of citizens have the task of electing representatives who are then expected to deliberate on policy, represent the views of their constituents, and come to decisions which have binding effect on the rest of us. Representatives should perform ‘representation as relationship’, to use Young’s (2000)phrase. The rest of us are expected to be attentive to those deliberations so that we can, at the very least, make informed choices of representatives. Citizens are also expected to engage with each other in the informal public sphere and to communicate with their representatives, to press public claims on them. Some will become activists who discuss and champion the claims of others, either through interest groups, or political parties, as public servants, as journalists and so on, feeding public conversations that develop and evolve across time and space. Sometimes, however, large numbers of people need to be mobilised to protest against the action or inaction of the powerful. The question, ‘What are citizens expected to do?’, leads to the question, ‘Where are they expected to do it?’ The answer, broadly, is ‘public space’, here considered in its physical aspects. The next step is to unpack that concept a little more, before getting into the detail of exactly what people are expected to do where. The concept of public space When discussing public space it might help if we had some clarity on the more general distinction between public and private. The traditional liberal distinction is between a private sphere of activity which is the ‘locus of initiative’ in which free individuals make autonomous decisions; and a public sphere ‘where the rules of association are defined and the problems to which it gives rise are resolved’ (Baechler 1980, 269). Thus the public/private split is taken to be 3
I am grateful to Jeremy Shearmur who first put this question to me in a seminar in Social & Political Theory, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.
constitutive of democracy itself: it creates normative room for citizens to exercise individual autonomy, and a public sphere in which conflicts between the results of those autonomous decisions can be resolved, or at least discussed. Precisely where the boundary between public and private should lie, though, is a matter of intense debate. For example, a major strand of feminist political thought has shown how the liberal insistence on privacy hides the political dimensions of domestic arrangements, which led some to want to push the boundary of the political well towards the private end of the scale. In the context of debates about fertility, however, the trend has been somewhat reversed, with many writers arguing instead for strict limits on the degree to which the political can encroach on women’s most personal decisions (Cohen 1996) – after all, any state in which the public overwhelms the private is condemned as totalitarian, by definition. Similar arguments can be found in the context of the so-called War on Terror, with pleas to protect civil liberties ranged against demands for intelligence and security. What remains, then, is agreement that the public/private split is normatively valuable, but context-specific disagreement about where the boundaries should lie. So, rather than attempt to come to general conclusions, I propose to explore what public and private might mean in the specific context of public space instead. To the degree that public space is discussed at all in political studies, definitions focus on two dimensions: openness and ownership (Goodsell 1988b; Hénaff and Strong 2001). Openness concerns the presence or absence of entry criteria, and who gets to set those criteria. Anyone can enter public space and leave it when they choose; with private space, entry is controlled by an individual or group who can decide for themselves who to invite in and on what grounds. To appreciate the force of this, think of the disquiet, even outrage, that is felt when the openness of public space is breached, such as when police are overzealous in their control of demonstrators’ access to public streets. The sense of injustice is usually reversed when it comes to people entering private space uninvited; at the extreme end of the scale, think of the frenzy in several countries over newly-dubbed ‘home invasions’ in recent years. Of course, openness may not be to do with physical barriers or conscious decisions. There may be financial, social and cultural barriers to participation in a given space which means that one is much more likely to meet ‘a certain kind of person’ rather than others which renders it less than fully public, as Dovey (1999; 2004) argues is the case with many urban redevelopment schemes. The ownership criterion may, at first glance, not appear to be separate at all. For some, the right to limit entry flows from ownership of a particular space, so that ownership defines whether something is open or not (for example, Pennock 1980). This may seem to be obviously the case when it comes to some kinds of property – my home, my briefcase (Christman 1994, 6) – but not so obvious when it comes to others. In Britain, for example, National Parks are on privately owned land, but people have the right to wander across that land uninvited and with relatively few restrictions. Recently I heard a representative of English Heritage bewailing the loss of open access to ‘public space’ that occurs every time a church, privately owned by the Church of England, is sold and converted into a home or flats (BBC 2005). Equally, there are buildings and spaces that we call ‘publicly owned’ in the sense that they are owned by the state, but to which there are more limited rights of entry: National Parks in most other
countries, military bases, the offices of government departments, even Parliament itself. The ownership dimension can also be misleading because it divides space into separate packages that can be assigned to some particular individual (Waldron 1988, 38-41). This causes two problems. First, some kinds of public space are not separable. Like other common goods, they cannot be subdivided without destroying them, and involve and affect many people without distinction. For example, a building might be a separate entity, and thus owned either privately or by the state; but a collection of buildings makes up what is called ‘the built environment’ which creates and delimits common, public space. Second, a given territory can have multiple geographies, multiple boundaries. Interesting examples arise in conflicts over land access and use between indigenous people and colonists in Africa, Australasia, and the Americas; or in Northern Ireland where Catholic and Protestant neighbours have entirely different patterns of use of what on an ordinary road map looks like the same territory.4 The first observation means that some kinds of public space cannot just be treated analytically as a special class of property, one that happens to be owned by the state or some other collective body. Rather, they need to be treated more like other public goods. Therefore, relevant to any discussion of public space will be the usual issues that arise with other public goods, namely ensuring their continuing existence given the free-rider problem and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin 1968). The second means that even physical space has socially constructed elements. While this means that one cannot entirely shift from the abstract to the concrete in this kind of discussion, it also means that public space will necessarily be a topic of political contestation, involving fights over who controls access to space and thus who controls the resources, material and cultural, that come with it. So, one of the primary markers of public as opposed to private space is accessibility, remembering that the barriers to entry may not be physical. Ownership is secondary: while there are many cases where there is a link between private ownership and inaccessibility, ownership is not a sufficient definitional condition. Still, a definitional approach that focuses on accessibility does not tell us much about the democratic purposes of such space, which is where we left things in the previous section. Aware of that, Goodsell (1988b) makes some further distinctions based on whether the space is enclosed or not, and whether it is for ceremonial or more everyday purposes.5 One can extend this purposive thinking and consider that some public space has specifically political purposes, in the sense that it is space in which people press public claims – for example, the sites of public protest and demonstration – while other public space is public in the sense that it is itself a good available to all – public parks, libraries, sport and leisure facilities and so on. Of course, these categories can overlap, which is itself the source of conflict: one person’s peaceful park is another person’s site for a political rally, which, if pursued simultaneously, causes no end of trouble. Still, the point here is that another primary marker of public space is where it exists for public, common purposes. Those purposes can be political, in the sense that they are about pressing claims on others; or nonpolitical, in the sense that they provide other public goods. 4
Shirlow (2001). Thanks to Roger Mac Ginty for the example. Goodsell uses the word ‘utilitarian’ rather than ‘everyday’. I prefer the latter because of the former’s specialised meaning in political theory. 5
I take Goodsell’s ceremonial/everyday distinction to be more significant than the enclosed/open one because more seems to hang on the former. While every culture has behavioural norms that apply in all spaces, the requirements in ceremonial spaces are rather more strict: there are rules about who can be where, who can sit and who must stand, when and how to speak, and so on. This can apply regardless of whether the event is taking place indoors in an assembly building or outdoors in a town square, as with the outdoor parliaments, or Landsgemeinden, that happen every year in the Swiss cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Inner-rhodes. However, this raises an interesting point of contrast between liberal political theory and the social theory that underlies the spatial turn. Many of the latter theorists take the presence of behavioural norms, especially if they are enforced by security officers, as evidence that a given space is not public. Note how different this is from the liberal conception of ‘private’ as being the sphere of free action and ‘public’ as the sphere in which we sort through the conflicts thus generated. Drawing on post-modern, especially Foucauldian analyses of power and freedom, the conception implicit in much architectural and geographical writing is quite the opposite: public = free, private = constrained (eg. Dovey 1999, 160). Putting the equation this way round seems to me to be a mistake. While it is reasonable to scrutinise the use of overt or covert power to exclude certain people from using public space, often through privatisation of such space—the shopping mall is a frequent example—to define public space in terms of the absence of behavioural norms cuts out of the definition so many of the formal settings in which people gather to make decisions, represent identities, and reinforce memberships. Think of places like courts and parliaments, or largescale celebrations in parks and stadiums. The mistake is compounded when some authors take another step and enthuse about unconventional, risky, even dangerous behaviour in public space as being somehow more democratic than conventional, ordered, structured behaviour. Implicit in some of this work is the view that freedom of individual action is what defines democracy, which seems so obviously mistaken as to require no further comment here. However, a democrat could celebrate such action without taking such a narrow view by framing it instead as action that reclaims space for the public. The trendy example at present is skateboarding, something that is celebrated for reclaiming streets and plazas from private corporations and the private police they hire (eg, Borden 2001; Stevens and Dovey 2004). There is an obvious rejoinder to this: that space that has been colonised by young people whizzing around on skateboards is no longer ‘public’ for the elderly, or for parents with very young children, among others. A collision between a boarder and an eighty year old, no matter how fit and healthy, can result in serious injury to the older person, even death. For public space to be genuinely accessible to all there must be rules which regulate interactions between individuals, a Rawlsian freedom for each consistent with a like freedom for all, not individualistic anarchy. While rebellious acts may be necessary to force open space that should not be closed or overly regulated, as is the case with deliberately unreasonable acts used to force open deliberative moments (Young 2000), the presence or absence of such activity cannot be something that defines whether space is public or private. Rather, public space can itself be more or less rule-bound, depending on its purpose, or the variety of purposes to which it can be put by different people whose needs often conflict.
The final point is that some space is public not so much because it is accessible, or for political purposes, but because it is inescapable. I am thinking here of the built environment: the aggregate of buildings, roads, paths, parks, squares, monuments, traffic, people, art, advertising; even the sounds and smells produced by these things. The reason why such space matters in a political sense is because it dominates our lives—and I am thinking here of Pettit’s (1997) definition of freedom as non-domination. Beyond contingent judgements of aesthetics and what constitutes a pleasant visual experience, the built environment can allow in or block out sunlight; encourage community or the setting up of enclaves; facilitate or hamper public transport and access to the powerful. In other words, the built environment shapes the ability of people to act as fully-empowered members of a democratic society, although how much physical space determines behaviour is still being debated.6 Thus, the third marker of public space is where it makes up the common experience of people in a particular locality. On this definition, if I walk down Paris’s Champs Elysées, I am in public space that is made up not just of the wide footpaths and the parks, but the Haussmann-era façades on either side, the shops, the crowds. I am in public space when sitting on a park bench looking across Sydney Harbour to the Bridge and Opera House, and while I am not in public space when I look at the same view from an apartment block on Kirribilli Point, public space is nonetheless impacting on me. I am not in public space when I enter someone’s home, although what I do when inside may have public consequences, such as when I indulge loudly my refound pleasure in the music of the Sex Pistols. I am in a liminal, ambiguous position when walking up to someone’s front door, the same liminality that affects me if I walk along an arcaded footpath in many European cities: the privately owned buildings cover and protect the public walkways and are thus ‘porous’ in more than just the sense that they are often made from sandstone (Benjamin 1999; see also Madanipour 2003). Whether public space is made up of publicly or privately owned buildings is neither here nor there, although ownership may make a difference to how deeply I can penetrate the façades of the buildings and other spaces surrounding me; and there may be grounds for thinking that some spaces should be more accessible than they are. Still, defining physical public space is not a straightforward matter of ownership. What marks space as public is either its accessibility; or its use for public purposes; or a certain inescapability; or some combination of any or all of the three; whether its constituent parts are privately owned or not. The importance of public space to democracy We are now in a position to give much more detailed answers to the questions, ‘What are people expected to do in democratic societies, and where are they 6
There is, at present, some governmental enthusiasm for better public design in Britain, driven in part by the conviction that structure does determine behaviour across a remarkable number of domains. According to a report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE 2005, 5), better public design can improve public health, crime prevention, environmental sustainability, community renewal, and economic performance. Decades of institutionalist versus behaviouralist (or structure/agency) debate in political science would suggest that while structure clearly matters, such determinism is unfounded.
expected to do those things?’ In this section, I survey the physical spaces needed for democratic action at several points in the ‘deliberative system’ (Mansbridge 1999), from the informal public sphere of civil society to the formal institutions of representative assemblies, as well as public space which is not overtly political at all. This discussion will not only flesh out the description of public space but also contribute to an understanding of what is necessary for a healthy democratic society. Informal public space But does not, though the name Parliament subsists, the parliamentary debate go on now, everywhere and at all times, in a far more comprehensive way, out of Parliament altogether?...Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. (Carlyle 1993) On the holistic account, democratic life gains its energy and vitality from millions of small-scale participatory moments in many different locations at many different times, all contributing to a ‘subjectless, decentred’ public conversation (Benhabib 1996, 75; Dryzek 2000, 74-5; Young 2000, 167). This is not just a recent view – it is one eloquently expressed by Thomas Carlyle in his London lectures of 1840. On this view, it is important to the health of democracy that many different locations for public debate are available, and ones that are not overwhelmed by the power of the state. For a contrast, consider societies, like those behind the Iron Curtain before the 1990s, in which this freedom to gather in small groups to discuss political topics was simply not there. Democrats working in this mode have been most responsible for the shift in political theory away from the physical and into the virtual worlds of public space. They speak in metaphorical terms about the ‘space’ available in the media and the informal public sphere, considering the subtle ways in which power acts to open and close access, either through direct pressure or the more subtle processes by which ideology and discourse constructs the parameters of what is discussable and the spaces in which that discussion is allowed to happen. What is missing from this kind of work is a recognition that, nonetheless, physical space still matters to discursive democratic engagement. Consider the pressure tactics employed by otherwise decentred, discursive networks (Dryzek 2000). They do not merely act in cyberspace. For one thing, they organise mass protests and occupations of physical space: that is, they work hard to demonstrate the sheer physical presence and scale of popular displeasure. For another, the media is reliant on pictures, which in turn require physical subjects and physical confrontation, to a degree that is not often understood by political theorists. This is why interest groups, lobbyists, and politicians themselves work so hard to create ‘photo opportunities’: the unfurling of a banner on a smokestack by environmentalists; disability activists chaining themselves to inaccessible buses; the pictures of thousands of people in the streets. As Edelman (1988) has pointed
out, we must not forget that politics is a spectacle, not just talk, and that the ‘spectacular’ requires a stage on which to be performed.7 Traditionally, the site of this performance has tended to be the squares, parks, avenues and plazas where protestors gather to impress their displeasure on their representatives (see Bailey and Iveson 2000; Dovey 2001; Torre 1996). Capital cities have been particularly important in this regard, being as they are the seats of political power. Protestors want to get close to where their representatives sit, and most of the world’s major cities have at least one locality that is almost always the centre of such activity. In Washington, DC, it is the Mall; in Kiev, the Orange Revolution was conducted in Independence Square; for those brave enough in China, the centre is Tiananmen Square. London is an oddity in this regard, having two traditional sites for protest, Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square. This is partly due to the small size of the former and the accessibility and visibility of the latter, but choosing the latter does tend to place protest a little more comfortably—for representatives—at arm’s length. There is no addressing the crowds from the steps of power as there is at New Zealand’s Parliament House, for example, where there is an immediacy to political confrontation that is lacking in the British setting. It would be interesting to know whether the immediacy of the sites of public protest is correlated with governmental responsiveness; still, from my normative standpoint, it is essential that such common space exists for the expression of protest and the challenge of elites, and important that efforts to restrict public access to and use of such space be resisted. So, thinking about the informal public sphere directs us to consider whether or not a given society has space available for the use of its citizens. This should include privately-owned space free from state surveillance—the living rooms and private clubs in which groups in civil society meet—but there are questions about how inclusive and democratic a purely private style of civil society can be (Berman 1997). In addition, there should be publicly owned space available, including not just town halls, but also village halls and public assembly rooms; or meeting rooms in public libraries, rooms that do not charge convention-centre rates for the privilege, and which are easily accessible by a variety of people. There should also be town squares and plazas which can be used by people to press public demands. The accessibility requirement in turn implies not just things like disabled access, but reasonably extensive public transport networks and other infrastructure that enable all kinds of people to participate in collective life, as well as strict limits on the degree to which security services, both public and private, can interfere with the pressing of those claims. Formal public space If the informal public sphere is the energy source of a democratic society, the formal public sphere is required to bring the disparate results of public conversations together, to debate their differing conclusions, and come to binding collective agreements. Because there is no obvious way of getting everyone in a large-scale, complex society into one room at one time – the demos just will not 7
A few deliberative democrats are aware of the dramaturgical nature of politics, including Habermas (1984, 93), Hajer (2005) and McAdam (2000).
fit into the agora any more – we require the role separation that comes with representative institutions . While there Historically, the increase in numbers has led to a shift away from open, outdoor forums to enclosed assemblies, and one can see this transformation happening in relatively recent times. In Iceland, the Alþingi assembly moved indoors from its open field in the 19th century, after a few decades of interruption thanks to a Norwegian invasion. Six of the eight Swiss cantons with outdoor Landsgemeinden abolished them between 1848 and 1997; and while the Isle of Man’s Tynwald still meets on Tynwald Hill every 5th of July, it is a ritual, symbolic expression of participatory ideals, one that does not involve any actual deliberation or decision making. Most of the substantive work of Manx democracy is done indoors. This shift indoors has been associated with a double transformation of democratic public space. For one, marketplaces stopped being the primary locality for public reason and became either the sole preserve of the economic sphere, or flagged or tarmacked parks stripped of their formal democratic role. At the same time, the architecture of the forum shifted: from common spaces made up of lots of individual creations with the whole owned by none and accessible to all; to individual buildings, owned by the state, designed by a few individuals with singular visions, and with only a few areas openly accessible. The architecture of parliaments is itself an interesting sub-topic, and one that has received far too little attention. Again, those political scientists who use the language of architecture tend to do so metaphorically, applying it to the design of democratic institutions and procedures rather than the bricks and mortar (for example, Reynolds 2002). Even those like Ameller (1966, 122-30) who do comparative studies of legislatures spend very little time on the physical settings themselves.8 The notable exception is Goodsell (1988a; 1988b) who argues that the exterior and interior design of debating chambers, parliaments and government offices has important ‘cueing’ (non-deterministic) effects on the behaviour of representatives and public alike.9 Goodsell concentrates on the varying effects on deliberative style of oppositional chambers like Britain’s versus the semi-circular, radially divided chambers like Germany’s, although his observations are cautious and speculative. A few others consider the messages conveyed by the exteriors of political buildings, particularly the seemingly omnipresent ‘neoclassical language…used more than any other to create monumental parliamentary buildings that both inspire and can also intimidate’ (Sudjic and Jones 2001, 20), to the more egalitarian messages that are said to be conveyed by buildings such the German Bundestag and the Australian federal parliament, in which the public are able to express symbolic dominance by walking over the heads of their representatives (see also Findley 2005; Hirst 2005).
Public policy practitioners, at least in the UK, have been a bit more alert: see the Institute for Public Policy Research’s recent project on the design of town halls (Rogers 2004); and the Better Public Building Awards at www.betterpublicbuildings.org.uk. A few architectural studies of parliaments exist, notably Hitchcock and Seale (1976). A journalistic contribution comes from Sudjic and Jones (2001). Regarding non-democratic architecture, one of the classics is LehmannHaupt (1954). 9 See also Yanow’s (1995) reading of buildings and the built environment more generally as texts which tell policy stories.
However, it is far from clear how to read those messages. Parliamentary buildings can serve not so much to intimidate but to set apart political deliberation from the rest of life; to impress on people not only the importance and power of collective decision making, but also to encourage them to take those deliberations seriously (Edelman 1976, 96). An anthropological approach would seem necessary to uncover what buildings and sites mean to the people who are affected by them, yet there is little evidence of such work. Still, media images of parliamentarians involved in all-in brawls in supposedly consensual assembly chambers should at least make us think twice before making claims about the deliberative effects of seating arrangements. Furthermore, it is an oddity of a great many accounts of democratic representation that they place so much emphasis on the assembly chambers themselves, without apparently noticing that relatively little of the work of formal democracy goes on there. It is as if political scientists have been lulled by the admittedly-powerful symbolic role that such places play, yet even representative democracy needs an account of public space that encompasses more than just the assembly. At the very least it also requires committee rooms, party headquarters and constituency offices in order to fulfil the twin functions of substantive policy deliberation and communication with voters. The degree to which these spaces should be accessible depends on the values one is trying to maximise in that particular institution, given its relationship to others in the deliberative system. For example, protecting party competition might depend on keeping parties’ internal deliberations secret from their political opponents, while those who favour a more participatory account of democracy might prefer open access to committee proceedings, including fairly open opportunity to make submissions and participate in the deliberations themselves. Still, the point remains: public space in representative democracy is more than just the debating chamber or chambers. Market democracy and public space One final idea I want to consider briefly is the relationship between public space and what might be called market democracy. By this I mean the libertarian idea that democratic values are best realised not by governments but by empowering people in markets, based on the view that ‘governments deprive citizens of precious economic and political freedoms’ by acting largely in their own interests, and in the interests of the already-powerful at the expense of everyone else, including the poorest and most vulnerable (Mills 1986). This might seem, on the surface, to be a kind of democracy that does not need the kind of political public space I have been talking about at all. The public space that exists on the libertarian model is one that results from innumerable, individual decisions made in private, a vision celebrated by Nozick (1974, 312) when he praises London as the result of dozens of small, utopian experiments rather than an attempt to create a grand and, for libertarians, repressive vision. Still, Nozick himself emphasises that any given community within his minimal state framework might decide to create an assembly, or build public parks, or ensure that other political space exists; but that is up to them to decide, not for the state to impose. So while within particular communities public space might matter to their functioning in some of the ways discussed above, these kinds of space do not matter to the functioning of the just society as a whole.
Beyond that, however, markets require physical public space to function. This is obviously so on the traditional understanding of a market as a town square: sellers need somewhere to lay out their goods for inspection. It is also the case in markets of services and ideas: sellers need physical spaces in which to proclaim their brands. Now, of course it is true that an enormous amount of this marketing effort goes into media advertising; but it is also the case that organisations spend a great deal of time and money building the right kind of buildings to proclaim their brands too. Many build towering monuments to their own greatness—a ‘grandomania’ bewailed by modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright (1939)—while others build spreading campuses, or just rush to win naming rights to an iconic new development. One account of urban development projects in many major cities is that the buildings provide massive billboards for the organisations whose logos they bear (Dovey 2004). But this need for public space is not just reflected at the large scale of corporate headquarters: drive around almost any city and marketing messages leap out at you from billboards, footpath signs and neon lights. However, the market democratic vision of public space is also one that alerts us to the importance of public space that is not overtly political. There are two aspects to consider here. One is the idea that, for many, quality public space in the ‘built environment’ sense noted earlier arises from millions of uncoordinated individual actions rather than from the desks of central planners. Those who have visited Australia’s federal capital, Canberra, will appreciate the force of this. It is a city planned on the garden city model for grand vistas, with big monuments, wide avenues and widely separated suburbs, and while this creates a marvellous park-like atmosphere in places, its low density means that the centre can be a little like a ghost-town, especially at winter weekends. It is a city of 325,000 people that can feel like there is nobody there. Now, for some that sounds like paradise, but many others seem to prefer the vibrancy that comes from higher population density and uncoordinated, market-driven development like the narrow medieval streets of York; or others who prefer the chaos of Hong Kong to the orderliness of Singapore. One response to this kind of observation is to point out that those who praise creative chaos tend not to have to live in its worst areas. This was the response of the Singapore government when foreign visitors lamented the bulldozing of parts of old Chinatown and the infamous Bugis Street, places that were all very photogenic for the rich foreigners who could go back to their fancy hotels, not so good for the residents who had to live in the relatively poor conditions. But then, the disasters of housing renewal policies in many countries in the 1960s should remind us that the quality of one’s community matters too, and that may be quite unrelated to the health and national pride issues that concern central planners (Kuah 1994). The other aspect to consider is the fact that some public space just needs to be fun, with no political uses or overtones at all. People need space in which to walk, run, cycle, alone or with the family, to play games, have picnics, or sit and read, people-watch or daydream. However, and contra libertarian injunctions, some of those facilities may need to be publicly provided and state-protected if they are not to be sold off and developed for private gain. One of the great things about many Australian cities is the dozens of publicly maintained gas barbecues dotted through city parks: along the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley-Griffin, for example, or the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne. Anyone can wander
down to the waterside of an evening with friends or family, ‘crank up the barbie’ and enjoy the sizzle as the sun goes down. By contrast, it is one of the tragedies of Britain in the last two decades that many schools and councils sold off playing fields and other recreational space when their budgets came under pressure from the centre. Public space does not bring in much, or any, revenue when it is held by schools and local authorities; but sold to property developers, it can be worth significant amounts of money, especially in city centres. The result can be an important diminution in quality of life for residents. This highlights the point that public space is not all about protest marches and getting hot under the collar; it is also about relaxing, having fun and doing the things that make life worth living. However, while market democracy alerts us to the importance of such space, the property market is not the mechanism for protecting them. That requires a more active kind of collective decision making. Conclusions and implications I have argued that democracy asks people to perform a variety of roles both in politics and in other aspects of life, which requires different kinds of space in which those roles can be performed. Looking at the formal end of the deliberative system leads us to consider the importance of assemblies, not just as deliberative decision making forums, but as settings which impress on people the importance and value of collective decision making. For reasons of democratic authenticity, it is preferable that those spaces be relatively open, not just to the public as onlookers but as active participants as well, especially those spaces like committee rooms and constituency offices in which much of the real deliberation of representative democracy goes on. Broadening our view into the informal public sphere directs us to think about the availability and accessibility of public squares in which large numbers of people can gather to express their pleasure or displeasure with decision makers. Such space should be close to the assembly itself and not kept at a distance. When assessing the quality of such space, it would be important to consider how it is policed: whether legitimate protest is too tightly controlled to have any impact, a criticism that has been levelled when Chinese leaders, for instance, visit supposedly democratic nations. One might also consider, as has been observed in the United States, whether politicians come to avoid confrontational space and instead do their handshaking and smiling in controlled spaces like shopping malls where private security can whisk away inconvenient protestors. The rules of behaviour in different space may have to change, depending on how the powerful try to avoid or shut down confrontation in the name of behavioural norms and public order, as an organisation called The Agora Coalition is attempting to do by reinventing mall space as public, political space (Barber 2001). Thinking more broadly still, participatory norms lead us to consider the availability of space in libraries, assembly rooms, village halls and so on in which small groups can gather to discuss issues without having to pay corporate rates. We also need to consider issues of accessibility, most obviously through public transport links. Thinking about physical public space in this way has several implications for the study of politics more broadly. One implication is that those who would measure the health of democracy should take public space into account, and yet no methodology that I am aware of does so, from the quantitative approaches of the likes of Vanhanen (1997) to the qualitative approach of the Democratic Audit
(Beetham 1994). This is not the case with political sociologists like Lefebvre (1968) who bewail the privatisation of democratic space, but such writers pay too little attention to the variety of ways in which space can be public. This paper has discussed the impact of public space on democracy. What I have not had room to consider is the impact of democracy on public space, or how public space should be built and managed. Participatory democrats would insist on direct involvement of the people concerned in the process. At present there are movements like ‘the new urbanism’ and ‘community architecture’ which reject central planning and celebrate instead the participatory management of neighbourhoods by those who live in them, including matters of design and building (Parker 2004; Towers 1995). The contrary view, however, has a long history, especially in public discourse and from the architectural profession itself. It has been regularly asserted that democracy and architecture do not mix, that good design results from being draconian, even dictatorial (for example, Williams 1992). Now, it might be that this is just a case of the more general argument about expertise versus democracy, an argument that has some wellknown answers (Estlund 1993). Nonetheless, it might be interesting to apply those more general answers to the case of public space, especially given the complex nature of ownership within public space and competing norms about what I should be allowed to do with my own personal property. That, however, is a matter for another study. The final implication I want to draw attention to concerns the policy prescriptions implicit in much of the architectural, sociological, and geographical writing on the subject. I have highlighted the point that architectural theory tends to equate public with freedom and private with restriction, and in that vein celebrates activity which disrupts attempts to privatise, and thus limit access to, public space. I share the concern with uncontrolled privatisation, but architectural theorists make a mistake when they assume that public space requires no negotiation about the use of that space by different sectors of democratic societies. Public space is, much more than private space, somewhere in which individuals need to respect each others’ freedom to enjoy that space to the fullest possible extent. That need not mean banning skateboards; it could mean providing public skate parks. The point is that there are other ways of reclaiming space that do not risk the lives and limbs of less nimble fellow-citizens. Again, this is a topic that needs further development, but it should do so on an understanding of the public as that sphere in which conflicts are negotiated, not that sphere in which anything goes.
Acknowledgements This paper is part of the ‘Democracy and Public Space’ project, supported by the British Academy, SG-44244. Earlier versions have been given at the conference of the Australasian Political Studies Association at the University of Otago, and in the Social & Political Theory Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, both in 2005. Many thanks to all for their generous comments and criticism.
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